Stalked, the Casbah

Burgess the neon tourist wanders Fes and Marrakech.

By Steve Burgess 16 Jun 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Trust. For a visitor to modern Morocco it is a more precious commodity than that ancient prize, water. Whom do you trust, and when? The answers will help to shape your time here.

Morocco can be a skull-shattering experience. After the staid, civilized, prosperous beauty of southern Spain the change is as dramatic as a plunge underwater. Economically the trip across the Strait of Gibraltar is comparable to crossing the US-Mexican border from San Diego to Tijuana; culturally the gap is more drastic, from Christian to Islamic, European to Arabic.

Within the walls of the Fes medina I see leather goods, carpets, jewel boxes, cherries, strawberries, rat poison, dentures, sweets bearded with wasps, donkeys loaded with empty Coke bottles, beggars, tour guides, a tourist becoming violently ill in the gutter, starving kittens, a string of handcuffed men, a poster of Leo DiCaprio, goatskin lamps, rooms full of bowing men after the call to prayer rings out, a schoolroom full of children shouting sing-song lessons, two men playing checkers with water bottle caps, another corner, another street. (And yet perhaps the strangest moment comes on day one when I walk into my very first Fes café. There is one other customer present, and he says, "You must be Steve Burgess." His name is Richard Green; he lives in the Nanaimo-Renfrew Street area of Vancouver and has been traveling around Morocco for months. He recognized me from the CBC. He says "Hi.")

'No pressure'

In the old city of Fes the global giants of transportation-Toyota, Honda, General Motors-lag far behind the local market leader, Donkey. The narrow streets and alleys are made for their sure traction and modest profile. If this were North America the animals would surely be branded-Donkey Explorer, Donkinator 3000. Heralded by shouts of "Barak! Barak!" (Look out!) or standing by the wall as docile as a parked Hyundai, they dominate the ancient avenues of Fes. You really wouldn't want a car in such close quarters anyway (although the vibrant medina of Marrakech features far more motorbikes, which are driven through pedestrian crowds at breakneck speed. The neck that gets broken is likely to be yours).

Mostly there are people and voices-pitching, beckoning, imploring. "Ca va? Parlez-vous Francais? Listen to me-just look inside. There is no pressure here."

I sit on a curb beside two kittens huddled pitiably in the sun. A man approaches. "Don't worry, their mother is looking for nourishment," he tells me in French. "They are fine. Where are you from? Come with me my friend, come to my shop. Just to look, it's OK. Come."

I enter a shop, I am shown many objects, taken to another shop and offered a glass of "Moroccan whiskey" (the local nickname for mint tea) while I look at a succession of carpets. The proprietor asks for my name, shakes my hand as I leave with a promise to return. "Goodbye, Steve," he says.

Nearby on the street, a languorous youth reclines with a hookah pipe. "Steeeeeve," he breathes as I pass.

'Not safe'

Another young man appears by my side. "What are you looking for? What do you want to see?"

"Je marche," I reply, waving him off. "I don't want to take up your time."

"No, no," he protests. "I am just a student, studying English. I need practice and I like to talk. Come, what do you want to see? The tanneries? A view of the medina? I will show you."

He leads me up a succession of ascending streets to a hilltop scattered with ruins and grazed by donkeys, the old city stretching out below in the scorching midday. He takes me to a small tannery where cushions are being churned out. He asks me for money. I give him a little and he sulks.

No one can be trusted. Everyone is selling, everyone has an agenda.

Except perhaps the two young men who call to me on the street that evening as I wander, lost, outside the medina walls. "That direction is not safe," says one, who introduces himself as Badin and his quiet friend as Mohammed. ("He's very famous," Badin jokes.) "Where are you going? Ah, your riad is very far from here. We know a back way. Come with us."

And I do. Badin talks as we navigate through dark, deserted streets. He is a law student and master of many languages. He would like to see the world but travel, he tells me, is very difficult for Moroccans-the path is blocked by impediments regulatory and financial, not to mention the extra security difficulties faced by traveling Arabs these days. Badin hopes to make his way in some profession after graduation, perhaps teaching. "In Morocco," he tells me, "you must take whatever opportunity comes. There will not be many chances."

We approach a policeman on a motorcycle. "Now you can perhaps help us," Badin tells me. "He will think we are guides who look for tourist money. Just tell him we are your friends."

But the cop lets us pass and we soon reach my corner. "Goodbye," Badin says, shaking my hand vigorously. "Perhaps we will meet in Canada!"

One day on a street that leads to the modern portion of Fes called the New City, I am suddenly in the middle of a strolling group of teens who have been walking behind me. They are singing in unison and accompanying themselves with rapid, rhythmic clapping. They're really good at it. The boys want to chat, in French of course, and I struggle to follow along without much success. Football is one topic, where I am going another. They want to be helpful, which is nice. Except that I really just want to walk. Two more young men join us. "Do you want these boys to join you?" one of them asks in English. I politely decline and they leave with a wave.

The other newcomer tells me he has a brother in Lyon, France, gives me his address, and asks for mine. Why? Who knows? An incoherent longing for the outside world perhaps, an imaginary toehold on the future. I write down an old address and detach myself.

Random kindness

Later in Marrakech a man named Jamal will interrupt his pleasant conversation to escort me through the medina for twenty minutes to my destination, waving goodbye with a warm greeting. A baker in Fes will help me pick up a spray of coins that fly from my pocket when I attempt to pay for a piece of bread-then, when I offer the fistful of coins, will select two measly dirhams and bid me adieu.

And another man named Youseff, from whose sons I have just purchased a few lamps, will invite me to his home next day for a sumptuous two-hour meal of couscous, chicken and vegetables which, in Paris, might have cost more than the lamps. Youseff eats with his hands from the communal platter, while the younger men use cutlery. The women remain in the kitchen. A retired automotive electrician, Youseff asks if I am cool and comfortable, then tells me proudly that he has built this impressive home with its traditional central atrium by himself. Better than apartment living, he assures me-no voisins avec le brulee. He mimes the action of knocking on the wall and leans back with a smile as his little daughter brings out a tray of peach juice.

On my final day in Marrakech I am hailed by a man on the street. "Nice to see you again!" he says. "Are you enjoying your stay so far? I work at your riad. Ah, you are returning there? So am I, I must work. Have you been to the Jewish Quarter yet? Spices are very cheap. Would you like to go? No? OK. Do you have 20 dirhams? I need them for cigarettes. I will pay you back at the riad tonight."

Nobody's fool, I lead the man back to the riad and introduce him to the desk clerk as I ask for some change. The two men talk-they do seem to know each other. I hand over the 20 dirhams (about three bucks) and the man leaves.

"Who was that?" asks the desk clerk.

"Don't you know him?" I gasp.

"No-I thought he was a taxi driver."

When in Morocco, trust no one. You won't have much fun. But you'll save a few bucks for sure.

Steve Burgess drops the occasional postcard from his travels in Spain and Morocco. Here are his previous dispatches:

Burgess in Tangier: Fresh Prey

Burgess in Rolling Purgatory

Granada, End of the Hippie Trail

Tapas? Tricked Ya!

Burgess Skips Town Again  [Tyee]

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